The Irish Cowboy

Bill O’Brien
(William H. O’Brien)
Born: February 25, 1923. Died September 22, 2015, age 92 ½. 
Arizona Irish Cowboy, Bill O’Brien, died peacefully at home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, at the foot of his beloved Camelback Mountain, listening to family and friends regale him with his own stories and adventures they shared together. And, if you’re wondering, yes, as he always wanted… Bill O’Brien died with his cowboy boots on.
Bill was a regular visitor to Ennis and a dear friend to many Clare people, He was immensely proud of his Irish heritage and claimed Dromoland Castle as his ancestral home and Brian Boru as his ancestor!

 

Bill was an Arizona Irish Cowboy, Storyteller, Entrepreneur, Naturalist, Poet, Philanthropist, Rancher, Farmer, Pilot, Sailor, Falconer, Polo Player, Boxer, Wool Merchant, Archer, Jockey, Dog Breeder, Globetrotter, Practical Joker, Alligator Roper, Bronc Rider, and his greatest source of Irish pride, co-founder with his friends of the non-profit Irish Cultural Center, which now includes the magnificent McClelland Library.

All his life, Bill O’Brien just wanted to be an “ordinary Arizona Irish cowboy.” Born in 1923 in Los Angeles during the prosperous “Roaring Twenties,” Bill overpowered the doom and gloom of the Great Depression and supported his family by thriving as a young serial entrepreneur with multiple business ventures. Bill ran miles of trap lines through the Los Angeles Hills to catch raccoon, possum, wildcat, squirrel, and live rattlesnakes, and he sold them to Hollywood movie studios and fur trading companies. He ran a successful Saturday Evening Post magazine route, he was a carry-out boy for movie stars like Mae West and Clark Gable at the famous L.A. Farmers Market, and he managed an in-your-home car washing service. While trapping game in Topanga Canyon, Bill met the cowboy humorist, Will Rogers, a top calf roper, at his ranch and rodeo arena. Young Bill O’Brien said to Will Rogers, “If you’ll let me open your gate, you may gain an extra second or two on your time,” The celebrity cowboy columnist agreed, and Bill became Will Roger’s personal rodeo gatekeeper. As a nine-year-old, Bill competed in a swimming race with the Tarzan movie star Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic swimming athlete,winner of five gold medals in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics. (A true sportsman,  “Tarzan” then gave his defeated but unvanquished young opponent a free ride in the pool on the athlete’s massive shoulders.)

In his senior high school year and, yearning for the Arizona cowboy life, Bill O’Brien jumped aboard an open boxcar with his saddle and bedroll on a train headed east. He ended up in Rimrock, Arizona and got a job on a ranch tracking, roping, and training wild horses; working cattle; mending fences, and other ranch work. It was the happiest time of his life until then. He returned to finish high school and on to University of Arizona until World War II broke out. Bill joined the U.S. Army ROTC Cavalry, thinking he could train for battle on his Army war horse and then play polo for fun with his trusty steed on weekends. When the Army Cavalry realized horses could not compete against Hitler’s Panzer division tanks, the Army sold all the horses, leaving Bill with only his saddle but without his four-legged friend. Bill then joined the U.S. Navy as a Lieutenant, Jr. Grade, and became an “Underwater Demolition Team “Frogman,” the forerunner to the U.S. Navy Seals. He saw plenty of action in the Pacific—Iwo Jima, Nagasaki, Japanese surrender in Tokyo, and said, “Except for the shooting, I had a great time.”

After the war, Bill met Sarah Sargent Paine and they fell instantly in love. They married and moved to Millis, Massachusetts where Bill became a successful wool merchant and traveled to Africa, Peru, Argentina, and elsewhere. They brought back three Rhodesian Ridgebacks from Africa and worked to register the breed with the American Kennel Club (AKC).
After Sada O’Brien fell ill with polio, they moved to Arizona, the land of sunshine and opportunity, where she fully recovered and Bill became a real estate and business investor. His projects included a partnership that created John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch on Camelback Mountain—a deal which allowed the partnership to donate the top of Camelback Mountain to the City of Phoenix to be left forever untouched by development. Other projects included First Southwest Small Business Investments Company, (backed by the Federal Small Business Administration), Sunup Trucking Company, Canyon Lake boat dock; a real estate company, and Eagletail Ranch, a land and cattle ranch in Harquahala Valley, 90 miles west of Phoenix, where he raised cattle, plums, alfalfa cotton, and jojoba, with most crops on drip irrigation, a new water-saving method at the time.

Bill O’Brien’s many philanthropic enterprises included:  co-founder with his Arizona Irish friends of the non-profit Irish Cultural Center, (www.azirish.org), which now includes the McClelland Library, located on the Roosevelt Light Rail station on Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix; and the creation of the Wendy Paine O’Brien  Adolescent Treatment Center, (Wendy Center) for emotionally disturbed young people. The Wendy Center, which has now helped tens of thousands of young people live successfully and happy lives, was prompted by the death of his artist daughter, Wendy, who suffered from what is now called bipolar disorder.

In the last year of his life, Bill O’Brien spent two hours a week in extensive interviews talking with author/publisher Nikos Ligidakis, and Bill’s son Justin, about Bill’s incredible adventures over his 92-year life. The result is the forthcoming hardcover book Bill O’Brien: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Arizona Irish Cowboy, by Nikos Ligidakis, with Justin O’Brien, which will be published in fall, 2015.